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Track down hard-to-detect flood damage in used trucks

By on March 1, 2013

You finally found it — that dream truck. It’s the one you’ve been thinking about buying for years. It has the big sleeper you’ve longed for, the big power you’ve always wanted and the perfect transmission for the way you operate. Better yet the seller wants thousands less than you expected to pay.

You contact the private seller and your bank. You haggle with the seller, and he yields pretty quickly. The only thing he insists on is that it be sold “as is.” You can’t believe your luck. Finally, the truck of your dreams is yours.

A few weeks later, the fuel gauge stops working. Then a few switches won’t work. They’ll get fixed when you bring it in for an oil change. Then the technician hits you with the news. He found traces of salt and mud under the hood. He thinks your truck was flooded, possibly from Hurricane Sandy.

How could that be? You bought the truck in Nebraska, miles away from flooding. But people who resell salvaged or scrapped trucks can — and do — go out of their way to cheat. Insurance companies mark titles to identify such trucks, but that can be erased with “title washing.” Vehicles get moved across state lines, re-registered each time. Eventually, the notations disappear. A truck marked “flood damaged” in an Eastern Seaboard or Gulf Coast state many wind up with a title washed clean in a Great Plains or Mountain state.

Get educated

Buying a used truck need not be risky. Buying from a dealer that carries the make you’re buying reduces risk. But even dealers get burned when titles have been washed clean and a flood-damaged truck is brought in on trade.

To minimize your exposure you must know the market. Do your research and know your target truck’s value. Buy a copy of Kelley Blue Book or look at Truckpaper, or

Before proceeding, record the 17-digit VIN. Look it up on the National Insurance Crime Bureau ( web page. They help check theft and fraud. Another place to check is with RigDig. Their comprehensive commercial vehicle database has records on virtually all big trucks from their date of sale. It’s like a CarFax for big rigs.

Start with the paperwork. If you think the rig is worth pursuing, arrange to see it. Never pay anything beforehand, not even a “refundable” deposit. If possible, see it at an authorized dealer for that make. If it’s a dealer you’ve been working with, so much the better. You may have to pay for shop and technician time, but it’s a small investment with thousands of dollars at stake. A good technician can spot things you may overlook. Also, the shop will have a lift or a pit to access the bottom of the truck.

Get nosy

Sniff inside the truck. If there is a scent of mold or mildew, find the source. Check under floor mats or carpeting. Look for signs that carpet or upholstery has been replaced, such as mismatched fabrics, looseness or new material. Look for dirt, silt, mold or rust in tiny crevices and under doorsill plates. Check in rolled edges of sheet metal or plastic on seat mountings, bottom of dashboards, tops of glove boxes and any difficult-to-reach interior parts. Check for rust in the door assembly, hinges and screw heads. Remove interior window cranks, door handles and door liners. Inspect carefully.

Under the truck, look for traces of mold, silt or dirt on top of the transmission, behind the engine and on other hard-to-reach places. Check linkages, cables and grommets in the firewall. They can hold debris from flooding and often are not replaced.

There may be traces of salt, silt or mud on filter housings and in fluids. Engine oil may have been changed, but filters and the oil in them may not. If oil is milky or cloudy, there is a good chance of water contamination. Salt and other debris will show up on oil analysis reports. The same is true for power steering fluid and coolant. Even with closed systems, water often finds its way in through covers or loose hoses. Having all fluids analyzed can be costly, so be sure you want to proceed with a purchase before sending any. If all signs are positive there are still a few more things to check.

Look and listen

Check the battery box for corrosion on the connectors and inside all cables. Liquids wick up through braided wires. Unless the battery harness was replaced, there will be signs of corrosion at the starter or alternator.

Turn on the key but don’t start the engine yet. The instruments, gauges and warning lights should all come on. Check the owners’ manual to make sure everything is there. The engine control unit and all its systems are interconnected on modern trucks. Many systems are multiplexed using just one pair of twisted wires. Corrosion affects computers’ ability to communicate and should show up during self-diagnosis. Touch the dashboard wires. If any feel stiff with salt that has wicked its way up the wire, or if insulation seems brittle, you probably found signs of flooding.

Try the radio on all bands and try audio players. If the radio or stereo system is new, ask why. Speakers, especially those embedded in doors are prone to flooding. Play the sound system and listen for distortion or any unexpected pops that could indicate arcing.

Check the brakes and air systems, including the air dryer. Rust jacking, a major destroyer of brake linings, starts when the lining tables corrode. Soaking in salt water is a sure predictor of brake failure. A waterlogged air dryer leads to water accumulating in air tanks. That could leave you without enough air for brakes to function.

Start the engine and make sure all systems are operational. Set and reset all electrical systems. Now you’re ready for a test drive. Make sure the air conditioner works. Check the clutch for smoothness and pedal position. Pay attention to how the transmission operates. Put the truck under load and check that the fan clutch operates when needed. There should be no excessive side sway. Side-to-side transitions should be smooth. Drive for a few hours, under all conditions. If the truck has made it to and through the test-drive stage and is still performing well, congratulations. You may have your new dream truck.

If not, you saved yourself a ton of money and even more grief.

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